Stanley and I broke up two days before I started work at my new strip club. If there had been any doubt as to whether I’d end up behind the bar or out on the stage, it vanished with our agreement to end things. I had felt so trapped for so long, yet now when we’d both decided the relationship was done for I was miserable, devastated, even. For once in our long, tragic relationship Stanley had been reasonable and it was in part because of that, I think, that I so easily mistook my inability to stand alone for love.

Oh yes, now that I was free I was sure I loved Stanley again. For a long time my resentment had been growing and growing, and by the last month of our relationship I hated him with a passion I hadn’t realized I was capable of. Now that I was free, however, I could only remember the good times, long ago though they were. I forgot that for years now the only times I’d really had fun with him coincided with the times when I was too drunk to have a bad time. I forgot the way my eyes had begun to wander and only remembered that there’d been a time when he could make me scream in ecstasy, rather than the fact that I’d been using sex as little more than an outlet to wail in my great and terrible anguish. I forgot the way he knew how to make me tie myself up in knots of guilt and self-loathing when I hadn’t even done anything wrong, and I forgot the way I felt as if I were walking along a tightrope above a pit of upturned knives. I only remembered that I’d given so much of my energy to Stanley that I didn’t even know how to be my own person, doing things I wanted to do.

I knew, though, somewhere in my head, that this was wrong. Doubt nagged at me. “This isn’t right,” said the little voice in the back of my head, “he makes you so unhappy, he doesn’t care about you, he doesn’t care if you’re happy, and he only wants to take everything you have.”

I hushed the voice every time it whispered doubt to me, but I would give it one thing, I really, really did not want to love Stanley. I knew, somewhere in my heart, that he was bad for me and though I did mental gymnastics which would make an Olympian shudder I couldn’t escape the nagging doubt that the whole situation would end badly.

But I was going to start stripping on Friday!

This new club would be just like Paradox, I was sure, but further away and bigger and full to the brim with MONEY. If the love of money really is the root of all evil, I am indeed evil, and in my reduced state, the love of money and the anticipation of money was all that could comfort me.

On my first day of work, I fluttered with excitement. Granted, I had never given or received a lapdance and my experience of hoes-and-champagne rap videos was very limited, but I had faith in myself. While I had held jobs I didn’t excel at, I had never truly failed at sex work before. My sense of triumph only grew as the day went on. This club (let’s call it Heavenly Creatures) was going to succeed where Stanley had failed so miserably. It was going to save my life.

I spent the late afternoon buying the required thongs, as well as cheap perfume and a headband I intended to use as a garter. Even as a whore, even at Paradox, I had always eschewed thongs with a firm hand. They are, I think, the least flattering type of underwear in existence, making everyone look as if they have the butt of a Lego character, but at
Heavenly Creatures we were required to wear two of them at once. Hygiene, they claimed.

I managed to arrive at orientation on time. My legs trembled the way they always did when I went into a new situation, but I was joyously apprehensive about my first night in a real strip club. I didn’t see how this new venture could go any worse than perfectly, I even saw an incredibly deformed man on the bus from the train to the club itself, something I took as a good omen. I collect ugly faces, and I still have the rough sketch I did to take my mind off the case of nerves that threatened to erase all my composure.

There were three other girls at orientation with me, a pair of friends who had never stripped before and a beautiful, but painfully shy Turkish girl who said she’d worked in Istanbul even though she was only nineteen. I wondered what her story was; she can’t have been very old when she started stripping.

The woman who oriented us was a sweet blonde from Minnesota. She had been classically trained in several forms of dance, but had never stripped. After she went over the needlessly convoluted house-fee structure, she coached us in the official club approaches.

These boiled down to “hey, what’s your name? Oh, hi Bob, I’m Stripperella. Wanna dance?”

Even though I had never worked in a club environment, I knew enough about what people look for from their sex workers to know that this particular tactic would be met with more failure than success. No-one wants to be seen as a lapdance-operated ATM, and that’s exactly what the wannadance model makes people feel like. The official club guidelines for giving a lapdance were just as ridiculous.

“We’re an exotic club,” Cara said, her voice betraying the fact that she knew exactly how stupid what she was saying sounded, “we don’t grind on the guys, we make little circles.” She gave a short, insipid lapdance to a chair, visibly fighting the urge to roll her eyes up into the back of her skull.

Yes, Heavenly Creatures had pretensions of class. It was not a gentlemen’s club, no, no. It was a fantasy sports bar. We were not permitted to remove a single article of clothing onstage and, as per the suburb’s law, we had to wear little string bikini tops with the fabric cut out, referred to as ‘teaser tops,’ under our bras. What this actually accomplished, I will never know, but since we were technically wearing tops, we were able to abide by the no topless dancing law.

I was starting to wonder if this was really the club for me.

Finally, orientation was over. We were sent to the dressing room and told to get dressed, or rather, undressed. Once I was stripperfied again and out on the floor, I realized that the owner kept the club cold. It was very, very cold out there, and I was wearing very, very few clothes. I would later learn from one of the other girls that the floor was so cold because the owner believed it would serve as an incentive for us to sell more dances.

My second thoughts increased in speed, but I was being called to the stage.

I had told the DJ I liked dancing to industrial, and also the Rolling Stones. His interpretation of this was to play Pantera for me. I can dance to anything, but Pantera would certainly not have been my first choice. All that melted away, though, when I was finally dancing again. I couldn’t take off any clothes, of course, but just dancing onstage, presenting a gartered leg for tips, this was what I was supposed to be doing. I thought I felt alive when I applied to be a stripper, but this was a whole other kind of living.

One of the things I’ve always truly loved about sex work is the way it allows me to use nothing more than my body and my brain to make significantly more money than the average woman of my age and educational level could expect. In addition to that I get the luxury of making my own schedule and having only the most minimal oversight. Dancing
onstage, I felt nothing but the complete freedom that the dollars in my garter provided.

I was alive again, yes, but there was a tiny sliver of doubt left: I hadn’t the faintest idea how I was supposed to sell a lapdance.

Cathryn Berarovich is something of a renaissance sex worker; she’s currently employed as a stripper (and writer) but has held numerous interesting jobs in the industry. Each week, she shares her stories in Harlotry.